Re: RARA-AVIS: James Crumley

From: John Williams (
Date: 20 Mar 2003

Kent suggested, very kindly, re. Crumley
> Bill, see if you can find a copy of John Williams' Into The Badlands and
> read the chapter titled Missoula, Montana: Saturday Night at Charlie's
> Perhaps John, who is on this list, could expand upon his visit with

Well I'm not sure , over a decade later, that I can add much to the account of a lost weekend in Missoula that appears in Badlands, but if anyone wants a copy I have a whole pile of them here, so contact me off list and I'll sort something out.

FWIW though here's a review I wrote for Crumley's latest book, The Final Country, which includes a brief overview of his career


James Crumley - The Final Country (HarperCollins)

Twenty-four years ago James Crumley wrote a book called The Last Good Kiss, now widely considered to be the finest private eye novel ever written. At the time of publication, though, it was little noticed, coming as it did from way out in left field. Back in the late seventies the crime novel looked to be a dead form - its great years, the Hammett and Chandler years, were long gone, and the hot news in American fiction was all feminism or experimentalism.

And James Crumley was an unlikely figure to revive it. He was a Texan Army veteran who'd made it to the great creative writing school at Iowa in the early sixties, where he played poker with Nelson Algren and drank with Richard Yates and set his sights on the literary hall of fame. His first novel, One to Count Cadence - a Vietnam tale, hard-boiled in tone maybe, but definitely literary - had got him some part of the way to that goal. But then his second novel didn't work out and an introduction to the work of Raymond Chandler, plus a famously turbulent personal life, set him on course to write a crime novel as a way to make some quick money.

The result was called The Wrong Case and featured a Montana P.I. called Milo Milodragovitch. Not entirely successful, it still showed that Crumley was on to something more than a cash-in: the P.I., the cynical, hardbitten, investigative loner, turned out to be the hero America needed in the seventies, as the fallout of Vietnam and Watergate made the country turn in on itself.

With The Last Good Kiss, Crumley got it right from the first paragraph (one of those few that sticks in the memory in full - 'When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon'. On one level this is a classical Chandlerersque PI novel, following the search for a missing girl - on another level it's an extraordinarily vibrant portrait of America at a turning point, as sixties idealism and the subsequent national disillusion were about to turn ugly.

Crumley followed up with another classic PI novel, Dancing Bear. Then came a long layoff, while he turned his back on crime fiction and tried to write the great Texas literary novel. Meanwhile The Last Good Kiss inspired many of his literary contemporaries to make the opposite journey - Charles Willeford, James Lee Burke and James Hall to name but three. The great Texas novel never worked out though and in the nineties Crumley returned to the fray with two more - to be honest slightly below par - crime novels The Mexican Tree Duck and Bordersnakes.

And now, after another long gap, we have The Final Country. This is an extraordinary double-barrelled blast from a lost era; a two fisted epic of Texan treachery, packed to the gunwales with sex, drugs, booze and guns to a degree that seems utterly alien to these rehab times when nine out of ten fictional 'tecs are in AA, and the tenth only drinks vintage Merlot.

The Final Country sees Milo Milodragovitch coming up to sixty and trying to adjust to a new life in Austin, Texas, far away from his Montana roots. Milo is rich now and bored and gets embroiled in chasing a fugitive from a murder rap, whose crime clearly has its roots in the Texas of twenty years before, the Texas of the Last Good Kiss era, when Austin was a southern hippie Mecca, awash with pure cocaine and impure sex, a wide open city full of moneymaking opportunities (the Texas, it might be noted, in which George W Bush sowed his wild oats and Kenny Lay started up Enron).

What follows is a bloody picaresque as Milo's quixotic search for justice reveals layer upon layer of violence and deceit. At the heart of it all is the frazzled, Falstaffian figure of Milo himself - sixty now, and feeling every second of it (in stark contrast to the Peter Pan like detectives of other writers, for instance James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux). Milo spends most of the book getting beaten up then self medicating with unwise doses of cocaine and codeine. This is a wildly readable, berserkly enjoyable, amphetamine rush of a novel, as a private eye and his creator rage furiously against the starbucking of America and the dying of the light.


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